Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next eight installments focus on “controversial episodes.”
Brass Eye, “Paedogeddon!”
(Originally aired 7/26/2001)
In which authentic outrage breeds faux outrage, which breeds further authentic outrage…
David Sims: It’s hard to overstate the furor that greeted this half-hour special when it aired in Britain. Thank God the Internet existed in a much-reduced form, because I can only imagine the thinkpieces about “Paedogeddon!” that would bounce backward and forward through today’s online echo chamber. I imagine that watching this special episode of spoof newsmagazine Brass Eye without any explanation would be a pretty baffling experience—the target of its satire should be clear, but it’s still very jarring stuff, and it plays on very upsetting imagery.
And that’s Chris Morris’ bread and butter. With Armando Iannucci, he created 1994’s The Day Today, a news spoof so perfect it still gets laughs even though the references are dated. Brass Eye arrived in 1997, hoodwinking British celebrities into supporting insane fictional causes or babbling about a made-up drug called cake. Both are detailed, perfectly curated works of satire, down to the hysterical graphics packages and the absurd hyperbolic ramblings of the anchors. (A man in a coma is described as being “brain dead and quadrospazzed on a life-glug.”)
This 2001 special came as Britain was in the grip of moral panic following the abduction and murder of an 8-year-old by a sex offender the year before. The British press, never particularly renowned for its restraint, had kicked off a frenzy of fear, warning parents of sex offenders living on every street. This episode takes that hysteria and multiplies it by a thousand, with Morris’ stern anchorman warning of pedophiles (pronounced and spelled “paedophiles” by the Brits) crawling around neighborhoods dressed as schools or using Internet games to spy on children through the eyes of cartoon dogs.
It’s lunacy, of course, but the episode nonetheless has a disturbing aspect to it, broadcast from a darkened studio and featuring mini-storylines like a pedophile who’s about to be released from prison (he’s eventually burned alive in a wicker phallus by an angry mob). At one point, the leader of a pedophile-rights group (played by Simon Pegg) invades the studio and is captured and put in a pillory. Presented with Morris’ 6-year-old son (actually an actor), he says he wouldn’t want to have sex with him, saying, “I don’t fancy him.” Morris proclaims himself happy to hear it, but obviously takes offense.
That scene was one of the most often cited by critics of the episode, who called in to complain to Channel 4 by the thousands (at the time, it was the most-objected-to episode of television broadcast in the U.K., although there have since been other similarly uncomfortable flashpoints). Politicians, including the ones featured, lined up to slam the show, although most admitted they hadn’t seen it. Channel 4 was forced to apologize for broadcasting the thing without warning its audience about what was going to unfold. The Guardian has a good summary of how long this controversy dragged on for.
Morris mostly kept himself out of the controversy and has continued to make abrasive, fascinating comedy, including demented sketch show Jam, trust-fund-hipster sitcom Nathan Barley, and the terrific slapstick suicide-bomber comedy Four Lions. He’s never caused quite the stir that “Paedogeddon!” created, before or since, and perhaps with good reason. Morris has said in interviews that he wanted to go after the very concept that the status of childhood had become “deified and inviolate”—until children turn 16 and become sexual objects (that’s from this piece).
It’s fascinating territory but it’s also uniquely uncomfortable, more so than mocking terrorism or drug use or AIDS or what have you, because it’s taking on a universal taboo in our society. Most of the laughs come at the expense of a hysterical media and the resulting mob mentality. But I always, always feel discombobulated after watching.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I remember a Dennis Miller monologue—from his HBO series in the 1990s, before he abandoned the pretense that he was a comedian and not a partisan bloviator—in which he acknowledged that some people have terrible, painful urges that fill them with a sexual desire for children, and that they struggle with them and fight to suppress them, and if you have these urges… then you absolutely have to kill yourself. He said it with a broad grin and then he chortled, the way he always does when he reaches a punchline, even when he’s the only person who registers it as a joke. The thing is, Miller probably thinks that he, like Chris Morris, was practicing satire. A lot of people probably think that satire consists of labeling something as monstrous and expressing glee in the prospect of seeing it—or them—wiped off the face of the Earth.
Much of this episode comes down to arguing that the media hype that creates pedophilia scares is inhumane and cruel and leads to vile acts—which is true: Rebekah Brooks’ “naming and shaming” campaign during her time as editor of News Of The World led to a pediatrician being driven from her home by vigilantes who didn’t know there were words beginning with “pedi” that aren’t synonymous with “child molester.” But the show also touches on the actual acceptance of sexual predators, so long as they’re rich and famous and work in the music industry. It even suggests that “normal” people might have complicated, illogical feelings about their children, extending even to being offended at the idea that a pedophile wouldn’t be attracted to them. That’s a good thing to keep in mind when we’re all living in a culture that, in its inability to see children as simply smaller, less experienced versions of ourselves, seems to continually swing between trying to shield them from everything and, in the wake of something like Columbine, being terrified of them.
Aside from the fact that he’s funny, Chris Morris deserves the honor of being called a satirist because he would never see any point of raising a loaded, morally clear-cut issue like the rape of children just to say, “Personally, and forgive me for being brave enough to admit this, but I’m opposed to it.” The Dennis Millers of the world would be unable to think of another reason to bring it up at all.
Genevieve Koski: Man, I sort of wish you hadn’t pointed out Morris’ defense of the special as a comment on the deification of childhood, David. Before that, I was fully behind Brass Eye’s breathless lampooning of a hysterical media getting its teeth into a topic and shaking it for all its worth. As you point out, this is where most of the laughs come from, but that underlying unease you feel seems to stem from Morris’ desire to also lampoon the idea that children are idealized and off limits. I get what he’s saying there, especially in the context of a society that sexualizes these same children after a seemingly arbitrary cutoff point. (The Wikipedia entry for Brass Eye links to this seemingly too-good-to-be-true clipping from the Daily Star that runs a blurb calling the special “sick,” right next to a photo of a 15-year-old Charlotte Church, “looking chest swell.” I can’t verify its authenticity, but based on my limited knowledge of British tabloids, I can certainly believe it’s legit.) But seeing that argument played out using actual children, or even just photographs of them pasted atop graphic imagery, is quite discomfiting. I still don’t think there’s anything in “Paedogeddon!” that isn’t fair game for comedy, nor do I think any of it should have been censored; but I can certainly understand why it upset so many (especially given the abduction and murder David cites).
But being a fan of comedy, particularly that of the “edgy” persuasion, often means reconciling the humor with your discomfort about the subjects it’s addressing. (This schism is still being fervently played out in the recent online discourse about rape jokes.) Accepting the no-holds-barred spirit in which Brass Eye was obviously conceived makes it easier to appreciate the craft involved in “Paedogeddon!” I was most struck by the breathless editing, overblown graphic treatments, and conspicuously dramatic performances of the anchor-actors—all of which strongly call to mind the recent Onion News Network TV series—but my favorite parts of this special were usually the small, silly moments, like the shot of a baby doll with a tear running down its cheek, or sharp bits of writing, like the “Pedo-Files” voiceover that shames “men who have given up the right to a life without pain.” I had to actually pause the video after the “pedophile disguised as a school” bit because I was giggling so hard.
As with anything that takes the kitchen-sink approach to comedy, many of the gags don’t work, whether it’s due to a cultural divide (I doubt many of us reacted much to the use of British celebs outside of Simon Pegg and Phil Collins), the passage of time (it’s hard to ignore the staleness of the red-hatted Fred Durst caricature), or simply personal preference. (I found the segment on the videogame thin and quickly tiresome.) But that all-in approach has proven to be a sturdy comedic framework, and perhaps one of the only ones that could support such subject matter.
Ryan McGee: Of all the topics we’ll undoubtedly consider in this phase of the Roundtable, I’m guessing “children” will be the one that won’t suffer due to our distance from the original product. A few of us seemed to have a hard time reconciling the original controversy surrounding The Smothers Brothers through more modern eyes, but there’s something consistent about our desires to protect children from harm. That’s precisely the paranoia that fueled the environment from which “Paedogeddon!” was sprung, and David is correct in postulating that this episode would receive talking-head treatment for weeks if it aired on today’s televisions.
That its target is “the media” versus actual pedophiles is both astute yet also somewhat safe. I kept thinking of Todd Field’s Little Children, a film that makes many of the same points but locates people’s innate fears stemming not from what’s in the media but rather what’s already lurking inside their own hearts. It’s all well and good to blame institutions for societal problems, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. That so many papers and politicians shot themselves in the foot while hypocritically condemning a program they hadn’t even seen demonstrates how keenly observed this episode’s satire is.
Still, while tricking Phil Collins into supporting a fake charity is fun, it’s also shallow. “Paedogeddon!” hints at the way in which media-driven hysteria foments anger among the masses, but those masses are vaguely drawn, seen through the prism of the media rather than confronted directly. I’m not suggesting this episode should have drawn upon real-life pain in order to sharpen the satirical blade. But Brass Eye, at least in this episode, only tells half the story. We get a deep look at the way that media can transmit fear through propaganda, distortion, and outright subterfuge. But we see very little of why such approaches actually work on those consuming it. Analyzing that feels like more difficult work, but more important work as well. If it didn’t work, the media wouldn’t do it. Placing all the blame on those spreading fear and disinformation ignores those that allow it to succeed in the first place.
Erik Adams: I don’t know, Ryan: I think what you’d like to see more of from Brass Eye is absent because it played out in real life. Why dig deeper into a public that’s so often portrayed as a faceless mass of black-and-white opinions by the show’s secondary target when that public was bound to react to the special as a faceless mass of black-and-white opinion? In the Guardian profile David cites above, Morris says he wasn’t eager to cause such a commotion (“If I was happy at the result I’d need to have had my brains sucked out through a straw”). But the way I see it, “Paedogeddon!” needs that reaction to make one of its most salient points.
It might be a shallower read than the one Morris would prefer, but the humor of people reacting without thinking is at the foundation of Brass Eye. Just look at the various talking heads discussing HOECS (say it out loud) games, invented SMS slang, and Nonce Sense, giving deadpanned takes on extremely silly notions that are so similar to Neil Fox’s “crabs = pedophiles” nonsense (and so seamlessly integrated into the special’s whiplash-inducing milieu) that it’s impossible to tell who’s been duped and who’s in on the joke. I’m willing to guess that those who were giving their honest takes simply heard the word pedophile and read whatever ridiculous copy Morris and his team handed to them. Partially composed of kneejerk reactions, “Paedogeddon!” needed the kneejerk-reaction echo it caused on the other side of the TV screen. Because of this, the special will remain controversial and vital until more people quit taking everything they’re told by authoritative-seeming figures at face value (which is to say “probably forever”). And this is where we can loop Morris’ main thesis back in, because it sounds like he wants us to be skeptical about the assumed innocence and sweetness of the young, a pet theme he shares with no less a provocateur than the late Charles M. Schulz.
Donna Bowman: Genevieve, I think you’ve pointed out why this controversial episode is likely to retain its queasy sting for decades to come. Anyone who gives it a second’s thought understands that it’s ridiculous to believe an 18th birthday abruptly confers moral legitimacy on an observer’s boner. But we also believe very deeply in a) the innocence of children, and b) the need to protect innocents from evildoers. Those categories might be simplistic and suspect, but their hold on us is so strong that it can cause physical manifestations of disgust.
And frequently people will point to such physical reactions (from nausea to rage) as evidence that the behavior in question is inhuman. That’s easy for the media to exploit, and media exploitation is the main—but not the only—target of this episode’s comedy. Having lived through the utterly straight-faced coverage of supposed widespread satanic ritual abuse (well chronicled in the documentary Capturing The Friedmans), I understand how the news can transform flawed people into slavering monsters, and rare occurrences into ubiquitous, imminent terrors. The poll in which British men, after reading general descriptions of pedophilia, answered “yes” in overwhelming numbers to the question of whether they were one, as well as the statistic that 86 percent of citizens have had sex with children if child is defined as anyone under 30, perfectly skewer the blinkered hypocrisy of the sensationalist press.
Some of Morris’ more radical points are equally well observed. Despite the dated Durst parody, it’s still worth stepping back to ask why Americans are so eager to let entertainers profit by giving free rein to the demons spawned by childhood abuse. And the sequence where an art expert refuses to label an image problematic until it’s a real child’s head and a real enlarged phallus, cut and pasted together, is a searing indictment of toothless tolerance and aesthetic amoralism.
But it’s going to be a long time before this special isn’t ahead of its time. And even though we all know things are a lot more complicated than current mores admit, I doubt many of us are eager to live in a world where the lines have been blurred.
Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve seen enough of Morris’ TV work to know I find it consistently hilarious. Something we haven’t really talked about yet is how perfectly Morris captures the appearance of an important primetime news special, the way that this feels just so barely removed from something that might actually exist. (John Oliver praised this quality in Morris’ work when I talked to him last month about his love of Morris’ earlier radio program, On The Hour.) There’s a hilarious over-reliance on special effects, like when the commentator is shrunk down to a child’s size and races away in terror, and there’s a subdued sonorousness to the newsmen and women, one that somehow persists even when they break into song at the end.
Does “Paedogeddon!” still push buttons? Absolutely. But what’s dated about it now is the way that it exists within the language of the TV-newsmagazine spectacular, a form that has slowly slipped away in favor of the primacy of the blathering talking heads on 24-hour cable news. I found the episode frequently, painfully hilarious, but less for the button pushing and more for the way it simply captured a kind of ridiculousness in television production so perfectly.
Along with Iannucci and Pegg, Morris has partnered and mentored an extraordinary amount of talent in his shows, including Steve Coogan, Stewart Lee, Patrick Marber, Gina McKee, Charlie Brooker, Julia Davis, and many more names that would be familiar to UK comedy nerds. [DS]
The show’s braying parodies of American TV are wince-inducing, obvious stuff, but this episode is definitely years ahead of Toddlers & Tiaras. [DS]
It’s years ahead of Toddlers & Tiaras, yes, but that segment on child beauty pageants more closely resembles the HBO documentary Living Dolls: The Making Of A Child Beauty Queen, which aired in early 2001 and could thus conceivably serve as inspiration here. [GK]
My “Hey, it’s that actor from other British shows I’ve seen” moment came early on, with Mark Heap (Brian from Spaced) playing the pedophile in the staged reenactment. [RM]
I thought for sure the rapper was supposed to be Eminem, not Fred Durst, although the combination of music and clothing suggests a hybrid of the pair. [RM]
Further, slightly sickening art-imitates-life ironies from the Brass Eye Wikipedia page: “Beverley Hughes described the show as ‘unspeakably sick’ but later admitted she had not seen it, and David Blunkett said he was ‘dismayed’ by it. He also had not seen the episode, because he is blind.” Droll, Wikipedia—very droll. [EA]
The giant has been here—and dressed like a lady—all night. [TV]
Next week: Genevieve Koski tries not to say “pregnant” in a discussion of I Love Lucy’s “Lucy Is Enceinte.” Then, Erik Adams summons the Knights of Standards And Practices via South Park’s “It Hits The Fan.” (“It Hits The Fan” is available on Netflix, Hulu, and South Park Studios.)